It’s day three of Championship Fortnight and with three more conferences tipping off today, what better way to get you through the next two weeks of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s conference tournaments. Today, the Big South, NEC and OVC get started.
Dates: March 5-8 Site: Nashville Municipal Auditorium
What to expect: A battle royale between top-seeded Belmont and second-seeded Murray State. Belmont earned the OVC’s automatic bid in the Bruins’ inaugural season in the league last year, while Murray State took those honors the year before. They look to be on a title-game collision course, and either could be a threat to advance in the Big Dance.
Favorite:Belmont. Move over Murray State, Belmont is the new king of the Ohio Valley. The Bruins won the regular season title for the second straight season, thanks to a 14-2 league mark. Murray State finished at 13-3, and remember, Belmont won AT North Carolina in mid-November.
Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.
Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)
Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. Be sure to tweet your disagreements with this column @HoopsTraveler.
You may have already caught it, but last week the Princeton Review released its annual list of the top 10 party schools in the country. This coronation of the most “festive” campuses across the country got us to thinking a little bit, and we wondered which schools best combine college basketball and partying. Unfortunately, it is only in a fantasy alternate reality that I have had the privilege of visiting the campuses of all 351 Division I basketball programs (now we all know how sad my dreams are), but with over 100 of them under my belt, including eight of the Princeton Review’s top 10 (Lehigh, really?), I feel at least somewhat qualified to create a list of the schools that best combine college basketball with extracurricular festivities. I’m only working off what I know here (i.e., the places I’ve personally been), and apologies if I went to the wrong frat party during my one night in town – we all swing and miss sometimes. So with those caveats in place, here are college basketball’s five best party schools – plus a few honorable mentions below those.
A Good Time Was Had By All
5. Missouri – Columbia, Missouri is one of the more underrated college towns in America. Not only the midpoint between Kansas City and St. Louis, the home to the Mizzou campus also lays claim to a lively downtown and massive student body as well as a pretty decent athletic program. The newest members of the SEC have made plenty of recent noise under Mike Anderson and now Frank Haith, and passers-through will not be disappointed by the post-game activities on and off East Broadway. Oh, and Shakespeare’s Pizza is an absolute must for food and libations before heading over to the game at Mizzou Arena.
4. Minnesota – Few college basketball arenas can match the eccentric personality of The Barn in Minneapolis, and it’s those little quirks that make Williams Arena the perfect spot to cozy up on a cold Minnesota night. The good but rarely great Gophers have been a bit of a tease over the last few years, but the program has a solid history, and win or lose, the streets outside the doors to the Barn have plenty of immediate options for eating and drinking. Finding a seat at Campus Pizza before or after a game will be a challenge, but well worth the effort if you can make it happen.
Kansas has made a rather rapid transition from a contender for the Big 12 title (just because they win it every year) to an interesting potential Final Four team. The obvious big move was the addition of Andrew Wiggins last week, but yesterday’s addition of Tarik Black as he announced his transfer from Memphis to Kansas could make the Jayhawks a more formidable team in March. The biggest part of the transfer is that Black will be able to play next year for what is expected to be Wiggins’ only year in Lawrence. Although Black’s numbers last year–8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game coming off the bench–will not blow anybody away, but he was one of the most coveted available transfers because there are very few players of his size with his numbers that are looking to transfer. The big question for Black and the Jayhawks is whether Black can regain the form that he had early in his career or if he will continue the downward trend his college career has had recently.
One of the interesting aspects of conference realignment is how players are able to transfer between schools that used to be considered conference rivals. One such case is that of Deuce Bello, who will be transferring from Baylor to Missouri in a move that was made significantly easier with the Tigers move to the SEC. Bellohas been an Internet sensation since high school thanks to his ridiculous dunks, but his on-court production has been meager at best as averaged just 2.4 points last season as a sophomore. Several writers have speculated that the change in scenery may bring out Bello’s potential, but we are not quite sure that athleticism necessarily translates into potential.
Speaking of conference realignment, it may significantly affect the earning power of many conference commissioners, but at least for now Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott appears to come out on top in terms of compensation. Thanks to a generous compensation package that included a $1,376,000 bonus for the 2011-12 year, Scott’s total compensation exceeded $3 million narrowly beating out Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and nearly doubling SEC commissioner Mike Silve. This payout preceeds the basketball officiating scandal, which probably will not affect Scott’s salary although it oculd theoretically affect his job down the road. It will be interesting to see how conference realignment affects the salaries over the next few years.
Isaiah Canaan might be headed to the NBA (hopefully), but Murray State appears to have found his replacement in Zay Jackson, who was released from jail in April and allowed to return to the team. Jackson was kicked off the team following his ridiculous hit-and-run incident in September and sentenced to 49 days in jail before being released in April. While we understand the idea of giving a player a second chance, but in Jackson’s case we have our reservations so we will be interested in hearing what Murray State has to say about the situation.
It seems like NBA Draft combine numbers used to be a lot more interesting when top prospects participated, but the numbers from this year are still interesting. As the article mentions these numbers are not considered nearly as valuable among NBA teams as the comparable numbers are for NFL teams. The biggest surprises to us were Shane Larkin and Cody Zeller even though we both knew they were athletic. We just didn’t realize how athletic they were especially Zeller who was competing against everybody else without factoring in his size. If you are looking for a good way to kill some time, we suggest taking a look at the DraftExpress historical database and see how some notable recent prospects stack up.
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s OVC Championship in Nashville.
Late in Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game, it looked like the college basketball world would face a week-long debate about whether Belmont, a top-25 RPI team that won the league’s regular season championship, would merit an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after falling to defending champion Murray State. The Racers appeared to be in control when they led 62-58 with fewer than 40 seconds to play in regulation. But an Ian Clark jumper and a two missed free throws from Ed Daniel set up a Kerron Johnson drive that tied the game with nine seconds remaining. Following some controversy surrounding a clock stoppage issue and Murray State calling timeout before crossing half-court, the Racers could not get a good look for the win. In overtime, after Murray State star Isaiah Canaan dribbled the ball off of his foot in a tie game with 25 seconds remaining — one of 26 Racer turnovers on the night — it was Johnson again playing the hero as he pulled up in the lane and made a high-arcing jumper over Daniel, giving the Bruins a 70-68 victory and the league’s auto-bid in their first year, as well as the 1,000th victory in program history.
It Was Storybook For Belmont Saturday
Belmont is now able to avoid all talk of whether its resume was good enough to earn a coveted at-large spot in the field, and while we may never know whether it was, coach Rick Byrd is more than happy to not have to wonder. “I had thought about that question because I knew we could lose either of these games,” he said. Now, he can focus on getting his team ready for its next opponent, whoever it may be. The Bruins must sit and wait a week before finding out whether their resume was good enough to earn a seed that will give them a reasonable shot at a first-round victory, something that has eluded the program in its first five appearances in the Big Dance. There was the near-miss in 2008 against Duke that put the program on the national map, and the disappointing double-figure losses to Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years, when the Bruins represented the Atlantic Sun. While they clearly stepped up in competition in the OVC this year, most projections, including our latest, have them in the #12-line, only a spot better than the past two seasons. So while the RPI may be higher than it has ever been for Byrd’s team, the draw his team gets may look familiar. What likely faces the Bruins is a game against a bigger, more athletic high-major squad that will present match-up issues.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
As the calendar turns to March, let us declare: Let the Madness begin. The NCAA Tournament is still three weeks away, but the fight to get there begins in earnest this coming week, as 12 mid-major conferences will kick off their tournaments. The Big South and Horizon League will have the honor of kicking things off on Tuesday night, with their first round tournament games. Ten more conferences will follow suit with the first auto-bids being awarded a week from today in the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley.
We’ll be back next week with updates on all the action, but until then, there is still the homestretch of the regular season to attend to. So let’s move on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and (regular season) games to watch this week.
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
The Weekend’s Lede. Reining in the Last Weekend of February. The end of two prized college basketball traditions came to pass this weekend. ESPN’s annual Bracketbusters event saw its last go-round feature a slate that, frankly, didn’t meet the occasion of the event’s last rendition. Meanwhile, a decades-old Big East feud between Georgetown and Syracuse came to a close, and unlike the mediocre Bracketbusters field, the game was a fitting send-off for one of the nation’s best rivalries. Those two events headlined another excellent weekend schedule, the rest of which included (per the usual) a massive upset, some grueling league match-ups and all kinds of bubble and seeding implications sprinkled throughout.
Your Watercooler Moment. Miami Goes Down.
The notion of Miami going undefeated in the ACC always felt like a distant, almost untenable concept. The Hurricanes are, at the risk of paint a bleak picture, a basketball non-entity. They play in front of an apathetic fan base at a “football school,” in a city with fans that are — let’s just say -– selective about going to see their teams play. Neither me, nor most of the nation’s best college hoops minds, knew exactly what to think. Miami was good, sure, but how good?
Until Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest, Miami’s first in ACC play, the answer was unambiguously glowing: Miami was good enough to run the table, despite everyone’s early-conference season doubts. The Hurricanes were storming through league competition, barely breaking a sweat while doing it and slowly but surely grasping the country’s attention as they rose up the AP Poll and surfaced as a favorite to land a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The praise was well-earned; this team can really play. Not only do they have spiffy efficiency numbers to back up the results – which include a 27-point drubbing of Duke and wins over NC State and UNC – they also have the experience and senior leadership to complete the intangible component of a legitimate Final Four candidate. It’s never fun to be the subject of another team’s court storming, nor is it comforting to have your undefeated conference run come courtesy of one of the nation’s worst Power Six schools (Yes, Wake plays teams tough at home, but come on: these squads aren’t in the same league). But if you began the weekend pleasantly impressed and optimistic about Miami’s chances of making a deep March run this season, I don’t know why you’d lose faith now. Miami lost, and it didn’t look particularly good in recent games against Clemson and North Carolina, but does one game negate a 13-0 ACC start, a top-10 efficiency profile and a senior-laden team armed with the sideline guile of March-savvy coach? No, it doesn’t.
Also Worth Chatting About. Hoyas Soil Storybook Big East Exit.
Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)
All the elements of a ceremonial Syracuse smackdown were present. A raging pack of 35,000 + orange-clad maniacs, an eligible and re-ingratiated James Southerland, the jersey-hanging commemoration of one of the best players in program history (Carmelo Anthony). Saturday, at the Carrier Dome, this was about the Orange, about Jim Boeheim, about punishing a rival one very last time. Otto Porter and the victorious Georgetown Hoyas were having none of it. A defensive battle, as expected, stayed tight deep into the second half. Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone frustrated the Hoyas all afternoon, and Georgetown countered with smothering defense of their own. The deciding factor was Porter. In a game where points, assists and general offensive execution was hard to come by, Porter rose to the occasion in an impossibly tough road environment (before Saturday, Syracuse hadn’t lost at the Carrier Dome in 38 games, the nation’s longest streak). And so after a bumpy opening in conference play, and all the usual Hoyas-centric questions about season-long endurance being raised, Georgetown has rendered moot a once debatable subject: who’s playing the best basketball in the Big East these days? Georgetown is the only answer.
David Changas is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday night’s OVC battle between Belmont and Murray State in Murray, Kentucky.
It was billed as the game of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference. The league’s perennial power and defending champion taking on the new kid on the block and winner of its first 10 games as a member of the conference. It featured two of the nation’s best guards much of the country has never heard of. While it appeared that Thursday’s matchup between OVC West Division leader Murray State and East Division Leader Belmont would not live up to the hype, a late charge by the Bruins to overcome a 14-point deficit with under 5 minutes to play to tie the game with under a minute remaining allowed it to do just that. Ian Clark, the Bruins’ three-point sharpshooter who came into Thursday’s game making an absurd 51.4% of his three-point attempts, despite attempting nearly 6.5 per game, made three in the final 2:30 to bring the Bruins all the way back from a deficit that grew to 15 points in the second half. But it was Murray State preseason All-American guard Isaiah Canaan who had the final say, as he broke the 74-all tie with a deep three with 35 seconds remaining to put the Racers back on top to stay on their way to a 79-74 victory.
“[Clark] stepped up for his team and I knew we needed it and I stepped up for ours,” Canaan said.
Isaiah Canaan scored 26 points in an impressive outing to help his Murray State squad hand Belmont its first conference defeat (AP)
While Thursday’s game may have no impact on which team makes the NCAA Tournament – Belmont may be able to make a case for an at-large bid, while Murray State’s resume is not impressive enough to merit such consideration – the game clearly meant a lot to both teams. Before a charged up, partisan CFSB Center crowd of 7,141, the Racers were effective until the final minutes in controlling Clark and his backcourt mate, Kerron Johnson, who sat for the final few minutes because of his ineffectiveness, and exploiting their athletic advantage in the front court on the way to the victory. The Racers have not been nearly as dominant this season as they were last year on their way to a 5-seed in the Big Dance, but they have positioned themselves to make a run in the OVC Tournament championship and their third NCAA Tournament bid in the past four seasons with Thursday’s victory. The game clearly meant a lot to Murray State coach Steve Prohm, who expressed relief and satisfaction with his team’s effort after the game. “We needed this game,” Prohm said. “We needed it to test us and see where we are as a team. There was a different vibe out there tonight, with the crowd, the energy, the emotion, and the big plays.”
Tonight’s Lede. Stay Away From Number One. My best advice for teams trying to avoid losses: stay out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. Every team should take the floor on a given night with that underlying objective – winning games is a generally good thing, I’d wager – which makes that logic a really interesting counterfactual. The only way to reach the top is by winning games, but if every team to inherit No. 1 dating back to January 7 (when Duke opened up the week at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week) has gone on to surrender the ranking in the seven days that followed, it begs the question: are teams better off avoiding the coveted weekly AP crown? Of course not. That preamble was, in essence, a roundabout way to introduce you to the latest slain No. 1. On Monday, upon the AP poll’s customary afternoon release, it will be official – especially if Indiana falls at Ohio State Sunday. The Hoosiers were the main storyline from Thursday night, but they weren’t the only one.
Your Watercooler Moment.A Win Illinois Needed.
There is only one way to go about discussing Illinois’ win over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night. It is a season-defining moment. The Illini were fading fast in Big Ten play, descending into NIT territory far quicker than anyone could have imagined after an excellent nonconference season, but as we’ve seen time and again this time of year, one win can change everything. This win – which saw Illinois rip off a 13-2 run with under four minutes remaining after being down by double digits for most of the second half – changes the conversation around Illinois. It brings renewed optimism to a conference season that, up until Thursday night, had done more harm than good to the Illini’s Tournament chances. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier, and Illinois will need to improve its still-lacking 3-7 league record. But with a win of this magnitude in your back pocket, Illinois’ view on the rest of the season changes considerably. The final eight regular season games and Big Ten Tournament are no longer about hunting upset wins. The Illini got that Thursday night. From here on out, John Groce’s team needs to handle business against equal-to-inferior competition (Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, at Iowa), watch the bubble soften up around them and sit back as its solid computer figures and stable of marquee wins carry them over the finish line. Those above games aren’t guarantees – such games don’t exist in this year’s Big Ten. But Illinois is more than capable of handling all of them. Few wins will mean more on Selection Sunday than this one; Illinois is back in the discussion, at the very least, and depending on how the at-large picture shakes out over the next month, the Illini could look back to Thursday as the night they sealed their Tournament fate.
Your quick Hits…
Wolters Goes For 53. Few mid-to-low major players in today’s college game hold as much national appeal as Wolters. Not to the casual post-Superbowl Hoops crowd; rather, he is something of a college hoops nerd’s cult fascination, for reasons understandable and not. On Thursday night, he did something memorable. Something that will stick with Wolters for the rest of his basketball-playing career. He scored a Division-I season-high 53 points. He converted nine three point shots, and 17 total field goals. He expanded the Wolters legend into a tangible and largely appreciable concept for college hoops fans previously unaware of his brilliance. Wolters is an excellent basketball player, but no one – not even the most ardent Wolters’ supporters – saw this coming.
Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @TheMulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
With only a month to go in the regular season, the conference pictures are still not 100% clear. Let’s take a look at six match-ups this week that will continue to clear things up as we head towards March. Let’s get to the breakdowns!
#12 Ohio State at #3 Michigan – 9:00 PM EST, Tuesday on ESPN (****)
If you break games up into ten minute segments as KenPom does in his box scores, Michigan has only played two poor ten minute segments this season. The first ten minutes against Ohio State and the first ten minutes against Indiana. Both games were on the road in very hostile environments. In their last game in Columbus, Ohio State punched the Wolverines in the mouth in those first ten minutes with tenacious defense. Michigan recovered by limiting mistakes and forcing the Buckeyes to execute their half-court offense, which is virtually nonexistent Don’t expect Michigan to be rattled like they were in Columbus but they still need to be careful with the basketball. If Ohio State wants to win in Ann Arbor, Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are going to need to be even more disruptive on defense. Also, keep a close eye on Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III for the Wolverines. Stauskas had zero points against the Buckeyes and GRIII was virtually nonexistent in both of Michigan’s losses. If Michigan is going to win the Big Ten and make a deep run in the tournament, these two need to be at their best every night. The addition of those two as scoring threats is what makes Michigan so tough to beat. If the scoring sits squarely on the shoulders of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan becomes much easier to beat.
Round Two of OSU-Michigan Will Be Another War
#21 Minnesota at #6 Michigan State – 7:00 PM EST, Wednesday on BTN (****)
After four straight losses, the Gophers have steadied a bit with wins against Nebraska and Iowa. They have avoided an Illinois-like tailspin, which is keeping them in the hunt in the Big Ten. Michigan State is sitting one game back of Indiana and is looking to avenge their New Year’s Eve loss to Minnesota. The difference in that game was offensive rebounding, free throws, and 60% two-point shooting from the Gophers. The Spartans are still having a tough time defending the two, so keep a close eye on the interior defense they get from Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, and Denzel Valentine. These three players need to lead the way for Michigan State, if they want to win this game. In the last meeting, Nix went 5-15, Payne had 4 points, and Valentine had 5 points. All three players need to be more productive for Michigan State to keep pace not only in this game but the rest of the Big Ten season. For Minnesota, they need to stop turning the ball over and play better defense without fouling. Keep a close eye on turnovers and free throws for the Gophers throughout the game. If they can limit both, they can beat Sparty again.
Yesterday the match-ups for the last BracketBusters were announced and given the lack of enthusiasm generated by the announcement we can understand why the event is ending. In the past it seemed like there were at least 3-4 games that we could point to as “can’t miss” games. This year the only game that measures up to that is Creighton at St. Mary’s. The game is bigger for St. Mary’s in terms of getting an at-large bid since most would consider Creighton a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, but a road win would be a big boost for the Bluejays in terms of their NCAA Tournament seeding. On the other end of the spectrum is Wichita State, who is scheduled to play at home against Detroit in a game that would be huge for the Titans if they could pull out a win, but it could also be potentially devastating for the Shockers if they were to lose at home and might push them on the wrong side of the bubbble on Selection Sunday. Outside of that there are a few moderately interesting game, but nothing that we would plan our day around.
We have covered some of the recent legal proceedings in the San Diego sports betting case and now we can provide you with an update on the Toledo point-shaving scandal (a case we first discussed back in 2008). Yesterday, Mitchell “Ed” Karam pleaded guilty to bribing basketball players to shave points in several games played between 2004 and 2006 as well as fixing horse races and defrauding others in Detroit real estate deals. Karam along with his partner, Ghazi “Gary” Manni, bet approximately $331,000 on the basketball games, but as Karam’s attorney claims his client was the unlucky individual who happened to associate himself with Manni. With Manni set to go to trial on March 12 we suspect that his attorney will be telling a vastly different story than Karam’s attorney did.
Murray State guardZay Jackson, who was suspended from the team for this horrific hit-and-run incident in September, pleaded guilty yesterday to second-degree assault and wanton endangerment with a sentence of 60 days in jail of which he still has 49 more days to serve before being on probation for three years. Before the plea deal was reached Jackson was looking at five years in jail before he entered the plea deal. In addition to the jail time and probation Jackson will pay for the victims’ medical expenses. Interestingly, Jackson had originally been sentenced to 30 days in jail by a previous judge who subsequently admitted to having ties to Murray State before recusing himself from the case. While we find it hard to believe it is expected that Jackson will return to the team next season. We are guessing this will be brought up by more than one group of opposing fans.
We have all heard plenty of stories about unsavory scouts so it is refreshing to read The New York Times‘ profile on Tom Konchalski, a New York City scout who is well-known in recruiting circles for his HBSI Report which he bought from Howard Garfinkel after initially working for Garfinkel. Konchalski’s knowledge of the high school basketball scene in the New York City metro area and beyond borders on encyclopedic and as the article notes on several occasions Konchalski can recall meeting players and the circumstances of their meeting almost instantaneously when meeting them again even it was over 30 years ago. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Konchalski is that we have never heard his name mentioned in any scandals (or maybe that fact that we find it refreshing is reflective of the state of scouting). If you are looking for a more in-depth profile on Konchalski check out this 2010 feature from New York Magazine, which is goes into his life and passion in more detail.
We focus almost exclusively on men’s college basketball, but on certain occasions we will venture over to the women’ game for particularly notable events. Unfortunately this time the reason is a sad one as Monica Quan, an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton, and her boyfriend were killed in their apartment late on Sunday night. As of late Monday night no leads into the double-murder had become public. We don’t know much about Quan or the women’s program at Cal State Fullerton, but we want to send our condolences to the family members of these two individuals and any others who may have known them as this appears to be yet another senseless act of violence.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
When you hear the word “Niagara” you’re not likely to think of basketball. But in the shadow of one of the world’s natural wonders, something is percolating on the hardwood. After a thrilling 93-90 overtime win over Iona that included a rally from a late 15-point deficit and a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the game, Niagara sits atop the MAAC standings at 10-1. A win over Loyola today would cap a tremendous week for the Purple Eagles, giving them a perfect 3-0 record against the next three teams in the standings — Iona, Loyola, and Canisius — over the past seven days.
Juan’ya Green Capped Niagara’s Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)
Last year, Niagara finished 14-19, the first time in head coach Joe Mihalich’s 10-year tenure that he suffered consecutive losing seasons. Mihalich had taken the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007 and to the NIT in 2004 and 2009, but the team had fallen behind the pack in the MAAC in the three years since. The seeds of a resurgence were planted during last year’s losing campaign, as a host of young players started to find their footing in Division 1 college hoops. Having lost no one to graduation, Niagara was predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. That seemed a fair, perhaps optimistic, assessment, but the clear light of hindsight makes a mockery of it.
What accounts for the turnaround? Mostly the maturation of Niagara’s all-sophomore backcourt: Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, and Ameen Tanksley. Last year, the trio showed that they had talent. This year, they’re showing that they can channel it into efficient offense. Green is actually averaging fewer points (16.5) than he did as a freshman (17.6), but that’s in part because he’s managed to corral his considerable talents and become a more effective facilitator. Coming out of high school, Green was known for his prodigious scoring ability, but questions lingered about his ability to create for his teammates. He’s answering those questions this year, increasing his assists (5.2 per game) and decreasing his turnovers (2.8 per game). With Green deferring more to his teammates, Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has stepped into the role of lead scorer. He’s upped his per-game average from 15.1 to a team-leading 18.7, but more importantly, he’s become a much more efficient scorer. He’s increased his field goal percentage from 38.2 to 44.6. He now shoots almost 80 percent from the free throw line, after shooting less than 65 percent last year, a significant development because of his knack for getting to the charity stripe. Tanksley, for his part, has also boosted his field goal percentage, from 38.6 to 45.7 and upped his scoring average into double-digits.